With Motorola Droid, Verizon puts doubts about Google Android platform to rest [review]

Motorola's Droid made a big splash when it debuted in a Verizon teaser ad during prime-time across the country and slammed America's favorite smartphone, Apple's iPhone. Now that it's finally been fully revealed, it's clear that the Droid has become the yardstick by which all Android smartphones are to be measured.

Motorola is back in a big way.

Motorola's Droid made a big splash two weeks ago when it debuted in a Verizon teaser ad during prime-time across the country and slammed America's favorite smartphone, the Apple iPhone. Now that it's finally been fully revealed, it's clear that the Droid has become the yardstick by which all Android smartphones are to be measured.

The Droid is Motorola's second smartphone using Google's free mobile platform, joining the Cliq on T-Mobile. While that phone focused on social communication integration by adding an innovative layer of software and services called Motoblur, it was at times sluggish, much like the T-Mobile G1 and myTouch 3G handsets that also run on Android.

Up until now, Android hasn't had enough horsepower -- by hardware or software -- to give the well-thought out iPhone serious competition. That's no longer the case, as the Droid is bulging with premium features both outside and in.

[Image Gallery: Motorola Droid hands on photos]

The key to the Droid's success is its platform. It is the first smartphone to ship with Google Android 2.0 (Eclair), the next-generation version of that operating system. Running on a superior Texas Instruments OMAP 3430 processor, that translates to a snappiness that wasn't apparent in earlier Android phones and, until now, was limited only to the iPhone and Palm Pre, the latter of which shares the same chip.

Android has always offered multitasking and a clean, touch-optimized interface, but now the hardware has caught up sufficiently to allow the OS to really shine. Scrolling is incredibly quick and transitions are on point.

Taking advantage of this are a wealth of new features, starting with the hardware. The Droid offers a 3.7-inch, 16:9 widescreen display that's bright and brilliant. It's easily the best screen I've seen on a mobile device, improving the quality of the interface, rendered Web pages, photos and video.

Speaking of the latter two: Droid manages a 5-megapixel camera with dual-LED flash, autofocus and 4X digital zoom, as well as incredible 720 by 480 video resolution -- unheard of for a device this small. True to form, it offers easy, streamlined upload to the Web.

The Web browser was also wonderful, amplified in utility by the phone's extra-long (or -wide, depending on orientation) screen. Those proportions allowed for easier viewing of full-feature sites. Droid also adds a few tweaks to the experience, including bookmarks with thumbnails and double tap-to-zoom capability.

What's amazing about this phone is how much is packed into its 0.54-inch-thick frame, just six-hundredths of an inch thicker than the iPhone 3GS. While that phone is full-touchscreen, the Droid manages a full QWERTY slider keyboard, including a right-aligned directional pad and dedicated menu button. I found the shallow, backlit keys to be quite easy to use, and the keyboard slides with a little resistance and very little clearance.

I've made it clear in the past that I'm fairly skeptical about physical QWERTY keyboards. I recognize that it boils down to preference, but I tend to fall in the camp that if I can save thickness and weight without one, I prefer to do so. Much to my surprise, the overall heft of the device -- 6 ounces, equal to other physical QWERTY Android phones -- is negated by its slim profile, and thanks to that, I didn't mind having the keyboard around, even if I didn't prefer to use it as my primary method of input.

If the Droid's camera makes the point-and-shoot and the mini camcorder nearly obsolete, its Google Navigation service -- free and in beta -- wipes out the dedicated GPS navigation device market. Motorola has designed the widescreen Droid to function as a voice-activated turn-by-turn navigation device, and Google's new software and "arm's length" interface makes it a reality. (You can read more about the service on Between the Lines.) It's worth noting that an inexpensive accessory arm can be purchased to dock the Droid on your dashboard for the purpose.

Speaking of accessories, there's also an innovative dock that saddles the Droid sideways on your bedside table while it charges, allowing it to function as a dedicated alarm clock thanks to a custom app that automatically loads when the handset is docked.

Android has always offered Microsoft Exchange support and tight integration with Google services, but now allows for an optional combined inbox, color-coded for clarity.

Android 2.0 also allows for homepage widgets, which serve as a great way to surface meetings and other calendar items, the weather, sports scores and other content.

Further, like Android 1.6, version 2.0 offers universal search, surfacing Web pages (history, bookmarks, etc.), contacts, applications and more all from the same search field widget. It's a welcome feature.

Finally, the build quality on the device is top-notch. The top surface is all-glass (but not oleophobic), and four touch buttons -- back, menu, home and search -- are integrated into the bottom of the display, and offer haptic feedback if selected. The back of the device is slightly soft in touch, and the camera button and back vent get bronze accents on an otherwise black-on-black device.

Not everyone will appreciate the squarish, 1980s look of the phone in the age of Apple, but it serves its function well, and certainly distinguishes itself in silhouette from the iPhone and Pre.

It's difficult to convey just how fully featured the Droid is. Verizon and Motorola are touting the phone as "without compromises," and for once, the marketing language rings true: it's the most powerful and versatile Android smartphone on the most widely-available carrier in the U.S.

By Lucasfilm-licensed name and feature set alone, this phone will appeal to the business customer, the technophile and the scorned BlackBerry Storm user for its combination of a crisp, clear interface, soon-to-be-ubiquitous platform and horsepower to get the job done. (Managers and students, you'll also like the preloaded QuickOffice document viewer for Word, Excel and Powerpoint files.)

But the Droid is no iPhone-killer. While it has matched and, in some cases surpassed that smartphone's capabilities on paper, the iPhone offers a radically different experience than this device, and remains the device with the broadest appeal. With a name like "Droid" and pedigree to match, this device won't be a runaway hit the way the iPhone was.

What it will do, however, is please the millions of customers served by Verizon who feel left out without an iPhone, Android or Pre. For them, the Droid is clearly superior to everything else available on that carrier, and most of the devices available elsewhere.

The companies that have the most to lose here are BlackBerry's Research in Motion and Windows Mobile's Microsoft, both of which support platforms that pale in comparison to this device in terms of usability and adaptability. Their market share is at stake here, as well as any customers that are on the fence about a touchscreen smartphone in the first place.

The silent pillar in this wager is Verizon. The breadth and strength of that company's 3G network is light years ahead of Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile, and a network that works makes a competent smartphone like the Droid that much more pleasurable to use. If you wanted an iPhone for what it can accomplish, the Droid fills that need to a T. If you want an iPhone because it's an iPhone, nothing else will please you.

Bolstered by growing development for the Google Android platform, Motorola's Droid makes the strongest argument yet that you don't need an iPhone or AT&T to reap the full benefits of the smartphone experience.

Looking for more answers? I've written a follow-up post to address your questions.

Newsletters

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
See All
See All